Justin Langston Mikha "Jussie" Smollett is an American actor and singer known for his role as Jamal Lyon on the Fox drama series, Empire. He gained infamy in early 2019 when he claimed to have been the victim of a racially-motivated and homophobic hate crime. However, evidence would later emerge that this attack had been staged by Smollett himself in order to gain publicity and further his career.
Life and Career
Jussie Smollett was born in Santa Rosa, California on June 21, 1982, and is the third of six children. His mother is African American, and his father was Jewish; according to Smollett, his father would have "killed you if you called him white." His father was absent for a significant portion of his childhood. Smollett told his parents he was gay when he was 19 years old.
Smollett began his career as a child actor in the 90's, appearing in films such as The Mighty Ducks and North. He later played the lead role in the LGBT-themed comedy-drama film The Skinny in 2012. Also that year, he released an EP called The Poisoned Hearts Club.
In 2014, he was cast as Jamal Lyon in the show Empire on Fox. His role, a gay musician struggling to gain his father's approval, was hailed as "groundbreaking" for its positive depiction of a black gay man on television. Smollett continued the role in subsequent seasons and directed an episode of season 4 in 2017.
The Alleged Hate Crime
On January 22, 2019, a letter arrived at the studio of Smollett's employer addressed to Smollett. The letter depicted a gun pointing at a stick figure hanging from a tree, and read "Smollett, Jussie you will die black fag" and "MAGA," a reference to president Donald Trump's slogan, "Make America Great Again." The letter also contained a white powder that was later determined to be Tylenol.
One week later, on January 29, 2019, Smollett said that he'd been the victim of an attempted lynching in the early morning hours of that day in Chicago's Streeterville neighborhood. According to Smollett, he was attacked by two men in ski masks who taunted him with racial and homophobic slurs, and said "this is MAGA country." He said that they then poured "an unknown liquid" (believed to be bleach) on him and put a noose around his neck. Smollett said that he was able to fight them off, and was treated at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, being released later that day in good condition. The police arrived on the scene at 2:40 AM, and found Smollett with a white rope around his neck. The immediate reaction to the news was an overwhelming outpouring of support for Smollett on social media, with the hashtag "JusticeForJussie" trending on Twitter.
On February 13, police raided the home of Abel and Ola Osundairo, two brothers of Nigerian descent who were deemed persons of interest in the case. The brothers were held in police custody on suspicion of battery, but were not charged. Police recovered bleach and other items from their home. The brothers worked as extras on Empire, and according to their attorney, knew Smollett from working on the show and had spent time with him at the gym. After two days, the Osundairo brothers were released without being charged with a crime due to new evidence obtained from interrogations.
On February 16, Chicago police informed CNN that evidence indicated that Smollett had paid the Osundairo brothers $3,500 to stage the attack. Financial records indicate that the brothers purchased the rope found around Smollett's neck at a Ravenswood hardware store on January 25. They were also seen on surveillance camera footage at a clothing store buying gloves, ski masks, and a red hat. The brothers asked specifically for a MAGA hat, which the store did not sell. Following this, police reached out to Smollett for additional questioning, and the FBI began investigating whether he was involved in sending the threatening letter he'd received the week prior to the attack.
On February 20, Smollett was charged by a grand jury with a class 4 felony for filing a false police report, which carries a maximum prison sentence of three years in Illinois. The following day, Smollett turned himself into the Chicago Police Department and was named as a suspect for filing a fake police report.
Later that day, Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie T. Johnson held a press conference, gave details of the investigation, and explained how the department concluded that the alleged assault was staged. Chicago PD believe that Smollett staged the attack as a publicity stunt meant to further his career, as he was not satisfied with his salary. The brothers who say they helped stage the attack said that Smollett had the idea to fake the crime after the threatening letter he received did not receive as much attention as he wanted it to. Police alleged that the actor intended to further his career by tying the incident to racism in the United States and President Trump, and that Smollett sent himself the threatening letter. Smollett was released from prison on February 21 on a $10,000 bond and was required to surrender his passport. On March 8, he was indicted on 16 felony counts of "false report of offense" in relation to the incident. He and his legal team entered a plea of "not guilty."
Following the arrest, Smollett's character was removed from the as-of-that-time unaired final two episodes of Empires fifth season. He claimed that he had an untreated addiction to ecstasy, but did not have any issues with alcoholism or his mental health. During the aforementioned press conference, police superintendent Eddie T. Johnson said, "why would anyone, especially an African-American man, use the symbolism of a noose to make false accusations? How can an individual who’s been embraced by the city of Chicago turn around and slap everyone in the city in the face with these false claims?" He further called the accusations "a scar" that "Chicago...didn't earn." Furthermore, many of the people who had previously expressed support for Smollet rescinded it.
On March 26, 2019, all of the charges against Smollett were suddenly and unexpectedly dropped, with Judge Steven Watkins ordering the public court file to be sealed. A deal had been reached for Smollett to perform sixteen hours of community service and forfeit his $10,000 bond in exchange for the charges being dropped and his record expunged. The FBI is continuing to investigate the threatening letter that police say Smollett sent to himself.
Chicago mayor Rahm Emmanuel was highly critical of the decision to drop the charges, calling it a "whitewash of justice" and saying that "from top to bottom, this is not on the level." Johnson stated his belief that justice was not served.
On November 20, 2019, he filed a lawsuit against Chicago for 'maliciously prosecuting him in bad faith', in which they allege that he owed them over $350,000 in damages and wages for making a false allegation.
In early 2020, Smollet was re-arrested and charged with six felonies stemming from four different false reports he gave to police. He has pleaded not guilty.